Port Houston Aims to Diversify Companies It Uses
The study, conducted by the Georgia consulting firm Griffin & Strong, found that minority- and women- owned construction businesses received 11.3 percent of contract dollars from the port between 2015 and 2019, even though they account for 45 percent of construction firms in Harris , Montgomery and Fort Bend counties.
For architectural and engineering firms, minority- and women- owned businesses received less than 6 percent of the money spent on contracts, though they account for 47 percent of architectural and engineering firms in the three-county area. These disparities emerged over the years because the port was not tracking the minority- and women-owned businesses participating in its projects, said Roger Guenther , executive director of Port Houston .
"We are tracking them now." Guenther said ."The port is a leader of commerce and economic activity, so we know we have the responsibility to promote diversity and equity in the region."
The port decided in 2019 to commission a study to examine its record in hiring minority- and women-owned firms, following similar moves by the Harris County Commissioners Court and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County , which have both published studies of racial and gender disparities in contracting. The port study used responses from more than 6,000 small businesses.
The port has set a goal of awarding 35 percent of contract dollars to minority- or women-owned businesses, but does not have timetable for reaching that goal. About 6 percent of contract dollars now go to minority- or women-owned businesses, according to the port.
The study found several reasons why minority firms may have been overlooked in the past. For example, the port tends to hire large companies that provide several services, instead of several smaller companies to work on different aspects of one big project.
Also, it appeared common for the port to work with the same companies over and over again, rather than seeking out new companies to bid on work, said Michele Clark Jenkins senior director of the Georgia -based consulting firm, Griffin & Strong.
"We've heard a lot about informal networks or 'the good ol' boys' network," Clark Jenkins said when presenting the findings to port officials in December. "It's only the people who have 'the in' who are getting in."
The consulting firm said in its recommendations that the port needed to be better at alerting firms about upcoming projects. It also recommended setting goals for hiring minority- and women-owned firms as subcontractors.
Guenther said all the recommendations were considered when creating the new program. The program will offer training to help minority- and women-owned businesses to bid on work as well as networking events to connect these firms with opportunities at the port.
Towana Bryant , president of Trinity Freight Services, a Houston logistics company, said she experienced some of the obstacles mentioned in the report. In particular, she said. she struggled to break into the port's network of contractors and find out about upcoming projects in which her company could participate.
She also attended networking events hosted by the port, but it never resulted in any leads for work at port, she said.
"Small business owners are busy," Bryant said. "You can't go to something that is just smoke and mirrors."
She attended the December meeting that unveiled the results of the studies and gave business owners an opportunity to discuss obstacles they faced.
She said it was one of most productive port events she had attended because business owners were able to talk to port officials.
She is cautiously optimistic about the new program.
"It gives me some hope. They have this new program, but will they successfully implement it?" Bryant said. "That's what we have to wait and see if that is going to happen."